In Bermuda, Shakespeare in all his glory

Bermuda has always given its own flavour to Shakespeare, using jungles, fields, coffee shops and local parks as backdrop for his plays. One of the most memorable local productions was a star-studded one of Macbeth in 1953, at Fort St Catherine in St George’s.

Charlton Heston was Macbeth. The play was directed by Burgess Meredith.

It soon proved itself cursed. First, Mr Heston’s tights caught fire, and then the entire audience was almost set alight. Ironically, older people today remember that play as “magical”.

“The place was packed,” recalled historian Ruth Thomas, who watched the 1953 performance as a young woman.

“They had chairs near the beach. It was magical, because they had the fort lit. To see the witches coming out of who knows where was fabulous. Macbeth stood at the top of the fort. It was powerful.”

She didn’t remember Charlton Heston rushing offstage with burns to his groin area. Someone had laundered his tights with kerosene and this apparently interacted with the hot sweat of the horse he rode during one scene.

To make matters worse, when they set the wooden facade of Macbeth’s castle on fire for dramatic effect, the wind shifted blowing smoke and flames into the audience. Fortunately, people were able to run away, and no one was injured.

Another Shakespeare performance well remembered by older Bermudians was the 1961 Prospect School for Girls rendition of the Merchant of Venice.

Teacher Carol Hill, now in her 90s, said her students were swept away by the beauty of his words.

“I think the universal appeal of Shakespeare lays in the stories themselves,” she said.

Mrs Hill intended for the girls to only read a few passages of the Merchant of Venice.

“They seemed so enthusiastic I decided that I would try to get them to act it out,” she said. “Shakespeare was quite foreign to the girls.”

One thing led to another and soon a full-scale production was organised involving the senior class. Mrs Hill rented Elizabethan costumes from a company in Canada.

“The girls had never seen costumes like that,” she said. “They were so beautiful. I had a hard time getting the girls to take the costumes off after rehearsal. It was June and hot, but they didn’t seem to mind.”

Claudette Bean Cann played the role of Shylock and vividly remembers having to powder her hair for the role.

“I remember Shylock had leggings, a cape and a hat,” she said. “We used a field at the bottom of Prospect called the Police Field. This one had a backdrop of huge casuarina trees.

“At night the trees looked like woods. With the lights reflecting off the trees it was beautiful. We didn’t have any microphones so we had to really project our voices so everyone could understand us.”

The play proved so popular that several extra performances were added.

Mrs Cann said being in the play gave her a greater appreciation for Shakespeare and a lifelong love for the theatre.

Not every Shakespeare production was so enjoyable. Shakespeare once said brevity is the soul of wit. Unfortunately, the late chairman of the Bermuda Press, Guy Ridgeway, forgot this when he gave a recitation of long Shakespeare passages before an audience in the 1960s.

“He decided to put on a production starring himself, The Seven Ages of Man,” said William Zuill, Sr, former editor of The Royal Gazette.

The Seven Ages of Man begins: “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players”.

“Unfortunately, Guy liked to shout or talk too loud, so it was a somewhat soporific performance, I gather,” said Mr Zuill. “My wife and parents went and said they had trouble staying awake.

“The Governor, Julian Gascoigne, attended the performance and sat in the front row. He kept nodding off. Every time his head nodded forward his monocle would fall out, and his wife would jab him sharply in the ribs.”

Miss Thomas believes that Bermuda’s relationship with Shakespeare is deeper than just a bunch of productions through the years, and actually pervades the culture.

She recalled her grandmother, Eleanora Jones, often reciting lines from Shakespeare such as “neither a borrower nor a lender be” to make a point.

“When she said, ‘the quality of mercy is not strained’ that meant you had to look out,” said Miss Thomas. “That meant she wasn’t going to show you any mercy. That is a line from The Merchant of Venice.”

Miss Thomas said her grandmother wasn’t very educated, but could recite long passages from Shakespeare or Chaucer, as could her contemporaries. “I think it is a West Indian thing,” said Miss Thomas. “A lot of the early headmasters in Bermuda were West Indians so they would have recited classical literature to their students.”

Today, the tradition of Shakespeare in Bermuda continues with the Bermuda Shakespeare Schools Festival, which sees schools from all over the Island performing different plays from Shakespeare.

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